Brad Pitt is leader of the title gang in 'Inglourious Basterds'To most people who claim Oscar expertise, the nominations announced last week narrowed the field of Best Picture contenders to James Cameron's 'Avatar' and Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker.' But within the film community, Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' is given at least a dark-horse chance of winning the big prize. And they would tell you that at least half of that dark horse -- the back half -- is Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein is both executive producer for 'Inglourious Basterds' and co-president of The Weinstein Co., which financed and distributed the movie. Over the last 20 years, he has had enormous success with Oscar campaigns, often getting more nominations for his indie films than major studios were getting for their high-priced blockbusters. His signature success, however, was pushing 'Shakespeare in Love' to the 1998 Best Picture Oscar over months-long prohibitive favorite, Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan.' Brad Pitt is leader of the title gang in 'Inglourious Basterds'To most people who claim Oscar expertise, the nominations announced last week narrowed the field of Best Picture contenders to James Cameron's 'Avatar' and Kathryn Bigelow's 'The Hurt Locker.' But within the film community, Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' is given at least a dark-horse chance of winning the big prize. And they would tell you that at least half of that dark horse -- the back half -- is Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein is both executive producer for 'Inglourious Basterds' and co-president of The Weinstein Co., which financed and distributed the movie. Over the last 20 years, he has had enormous success with Oscar campaigns, often getting more nominations for his indie films than major studios were getting for their high-priced blockbusters. His signature success, however, was pushing 'Shakespeare in Love' to the 1998 Best Picture Oscar over months-long prohibitive favorite, Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan.'

A few months ago, everyone expected Weinstein to be flogging his Rob Marshall musical 'Nine' in the Oscar race, but when people actually saw the thing that Marshall wrought, Harvey's critics began looking around for an alternative -- and there, bigger than a rewritten ending to World War II, was 'Inglourious Basterds.' And when that film collected eight Oscar nominations last week, well, they started looking around for thick shadows.

"You know Harvey, when he's got a movie in the race, you can't count him out," an executive for a rival Oscar nominee told me recently."He knows how to get it done."

Just how Weinstein has gotten it done is a source of admiration, bitterness and the peddling of conspiracy theories. I'm not cynical about his Oscar success. If he has accumulated nominations and the occasional statuette by buying more trade paper ads than his rivals, or by having more screenings than them, or getting DVD screeners of his movies out to voters sooner, well, they've had the same opportunities.

'Inglourious Basterds' is not my favorite nominee, but a very good case can be made for its ability to pull off a 'Shakespeare'-size upset. It received just one less nomination than 'Avatar' and 'The Hurt Locker' and it has received them in all of the pertinent categories -- picture, directing, acting, screenplay and film editing. It also did well at the box office, selling $120.5 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada and $193 million overseas.

Academy voters don't always reward the biggest commercial success, which is 'Avatar;' nor are they known for throwing gold in the direction of box office bombs, which is 'The Hurt Locker.' Compared to those extremes, 'Basterds' may have just the right mix of good filmmaking and commercial appeal.

Also in its favor is the fact that Cameron has already won the big prize while Bigelow is a first-time nominee. Tarantino has been in contention before. His 1994 'Pulp Fiction' was nominated for Best Picture and Director and he shared the Original Screenplay Oscar with Roger Avary. In the 15 years between then and the release of 'Basterds,' 'Pulp Fiction's' reputation had been growing in the Hollywood establishment while his reputation there was diminishing.

Now back with a film that his fans in the Academy can embrace, he may benefit from their concern that they might never have another chance to properly thank him for 'Pulp Fiction.' If that seems cynical, consider how many Oscars have been given to directors and actors for lesser work than they'd gone unrewarded for before.

Tarantino will get no help Saturday when the American Cinema Editors announce their annual awards. Sally Menke, film editor on all of Tarantino's films (and an Oscar nominee for 'Pulp Fiction'), was not nominated for an ACE Eddie award, something that every Best Picture Oscar winner in the last 10 years has been. In that time, five Eddie winners have gone on to win Oscars and to see their movies named Best Picture, as well.

'Basterds' could pick up a minor award this weekend. The Art Directors Guild is also giving out its annual prizes on Saturday and Tarantino's Nazi revenge fantasy is on the ballot for best designed period feature. But art direction awards are weak indicators of a movie's Oscar strength. Only 17 times in the last 50 years has the Best Picture winner had an Art Direction Oscar to go with it. And worse: of the 10 movies on this year's bloated Best Picture ballot, the art directors branch of Academy placed only 'Avatar' on their Oscar ballot.

Basterds.